Monday, July 24, 2006

Saying Goodbye to an Elder Champion

When Bruce Coleman retires from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the end of the month, it will be a tremendous loss for American elders and their advocates. As coordinator of “Project Emptor,” a position he’s held since 2004, Bruce has helped countless victims and “would be” victims of telemarketing fraud. Project Emptor, as in caveat emptor, Latin for "buyer beware," intercepts packages and mail that contain “bait letters” from telemarketers and checks or money orders from victims. It’s not the first time Bruce has retired. He left the RCMP in 2000 after 27½ years and returned to the Commercial Crime unit after a short stint at Workers’ Compensation.

In the last two years, he and his colleagues have intercepted in excess of $2 million: 80% of the victims are American, and the rest are from the UK. That’s just a fraction of the money crossing the border though—about half of one percent is Bruce’s guess.

He has some interesting observations about victims and abusers:

“Victims tend to be elders facing the onslaught of old age and possibly, early stage dementias. I’m not an expert, but you can tell from talking to them that they’ve lost the ability to rationalize or make good decisions based on the facts before them. Most can’t assess risk. Even after getting checks returned with warnings, some victims continue to send money, partly because they’ve previously invested so heavily in the scam.”

“We had one case involving a woman who’s a multimillionaire, whose daughter obtained guardianship and used it to protect the older woman’s money. But now the mother is “smurfing,” money laundering, for the bad guys. She accepts money from other old people, deposits it into a bank account or buys bank drafts in amounts under $10,000 to avoid the reporting threshold, and sends them to Canada.”

“When I ask some elderly victims ‘Are you going to remember that we talked?’ a lot of them say ‘no.’ So I tell them to write notes to themselves that say, “No more money to Canada” and put them next to their phones along with my card.”

When it’s clear that an elder is on a downward spiral, he tries to talk them into calling their families, or calls himself. “These families aren’t dealing proactively with their parents’ aging. Often, they’re not aware of what mum or dad are doing or that they’re having problems. They haven’t arranged for co-signatories on bank accounts, powers of attorney, home care and social visits. Many, many seniors are very lonely, and the criminals prey on them."

“The perpetrators are ruthless. We can’t say how much of this activity is related to terrorism, but there are certainly links to organized crime. Most of the perpetrators are involved in cells and are highly organized with hierarchical organizational structures. They use drug addicts as runners. People don’t realize that once victims give up money transfer control or reference numbers from Western Union or MoneyGram purchases or wire transfers, the cash can be picked up anywhere in the world."

With hundreds of cases, Bruce has to get in and out fast, which is why he tries to hand off cases to American law enforcement and social services for follow up. “Reporting to local police is like confession or a reality check. It helps victims come to grips with the devastation.” He has harsh words for social service providers who refuse to get involved. ”If you get a referral from someone who’s lost thousands of dollars or is at risk, don’t argue that the person doesn’t meet your criteria or mandate. Step up! At least call and offer help. Leave a phone number.”

On his good guy list are the Canada Border Services (customs), courier companies and retail mail outlets, which have provided excellent cooperation to the RCMP and are largely responsible for identifying victims.

In spite of the fact that co-workers call him Robin Hood and American colleagues refer to him as Uncle Bruce, he remains modest. “I’m the conduit of others' good work.” He admits though that since starting the program, he’s never received so many thank-you cards.

Will he miss the work? “No,” he says. After 30 plus years in law enforcement, he’s ready for a break and isn’t considering a third career. He will miss the elders he’s met though, who include schoolteachers, people in the armaments industry and NASA, dentists, doctors, rocket engineers, and World War II vets.

We will miss him.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Offenders, Victims and Restorative Justice

Last month, I presented at the Offender Treatment, Victim Services, Restorative Justice conference in Miami, which was sponsored by the Institute of Evidence-Based and Best Practices. The conference was a bold one–it’s not that usual to bring victims’ and offenders’ advocates together, and when you throw in sessions on applying restorative justice (RJ) to domestic violence (DV), you know they were pushing the limits.

RJ draws from traditional Indian justice traditions. Rather than treating crime as a matter of guilt and innocence, it frames it as harm that affects not just victims, but offenders and the broader community. It assumes that certain conflicts, particularly ones involving families, are best resolved by repairing and improving relationships and controlling risk, rather than simply punishing offenders. It offers victims, abusers, and the community opportunities to come together to consider why crimes happened, what can be done to repair the harm, and how to prevent future harm. It also holds that society has an obligation to help offenders make amends and reintegrate them into the community. RJ isn’t a single technique but a variety of alternatives ranging from mediation to peacemaking courts to family conferences, which can be carried out with court involvement, under court supervision, or as an alternative to court intervention.

Critics see RJ as “light on crime,” offender focused, and dangerous to victims. Anti-DV advocates hold that mediation is impossible between victims and abusers because of imbalances in power. Others claim that involving victims’ and offenders’ friends, support systems, and communities, which is done in conferencing, won’t work because these networks may actually support, rather than discourage, DV.

Supporters counter that RJ often demands accountability where the traditional system doesn’t, particularly in cases involving first time or minor offenders who typically deny their guilt, get off with warnings, and never assume responsibility for what they’ve done. One of the speakers, Donna Coker, a nationally known expert in domestic violence, is among those who suggest that RJ approaches can and should be added to the arsenal of anti-DV tools. She’s written extensively on the limitations of criminal justice approaches to DV, including the “unintended consequences” of mandatory arrest policies. Because the laws fail to distinguish between one-time versus chronic and minor versus severe violence, they’ve resulted in dramatic increases in arrests of women, particularly women of color, as “mutual combatants.” This is in spite of research suggesting that most are acting in self-defense. Recent studies on recidivism also contradict early research that showed that arresting offenders reduced DV—the newer studies suggest that arrest reduces violence in some cases but increases it in others.

Coker and others urge caution in using RJ with DV and emphasize the need to ensure that women are safe and not being overtly or covertly coerced to participate. Among the advantages of RJ are that it offers victims a greater voice in the process, can potentially disrupt social and family support for battering, and provides women with opportunities to engage their families and friends in confronting their abusers.

What does all this have to do with elder abuse? I don’t really know. But the fact that so many elderly victims refuse to initiate punitive action against abusive family members for fear of loosing their relationships makes me think that RJ deserves our attention. I’ve been following the few elder abuse programs I’m aware of that use RJ and was pleased to hear that the director of one, Arlene Groh of Community Care Access Centre of Waterloo Region Ontario, will be presenting at the NAPSA conference in San Francisco in September. Another exciting model project was conducted by the Jamestown S’klallum tribe in Washington state, which uses family conferencing to address conflict in caregiving systems.

We’ve made huge strides in improving the criminal justice system’s response to elder abuse in recent years, which is critical. I don’t see RJ as a threat but rather, as providing opportunities for getting more juice out of the criminal justice system by supplementing court authority with the power of family and community relationships. While the research is sparse, there’s evidence that RJ approaches increase restitution rates and reduce recidivism. Victims’ satisfaction rates are higher. The Miami conference was billed as the “first annual” and I strongly urge anyone who’s interested in expanding the scope and focus of elder abuse prevention to watch for the next one.